Iridium, great service, but in lieu of EPIRB?

Motorola_9505I am the proud owner of an Iridium satellite phone. Could I omit EPIRB from my safety equipment list? I believe that verbally communicating with the Coast Guard (with GPS in hand) is  superior to the EPIRB. Do I miss something?

That question came through Sail’s “Ask an expert” section. My immediate reaction is “hell no”, but I’m curious what you all think? I figure that many marine distress situations happen so fast and are so wet that what you really need is a totally automatic (i.e. water activated) or semi-automatic (hold down the button) device that is completely waterproof and will call out the calvary, delivering your ID and location in the process. That’s exactly what EPIRBs and even PLBs, especially with optional GPS, do very well.
  That’s not to say the Iridium isn’t a fantastic technology. I know a lot of far voyaging skippers who count on it for offshore voice, e-mail, and even restrained Web browsing (thanks in large part to super clever compression software like XGate/XWeb). I recall, for instance, that Bluewater has a fixed Iridium in the wheelhouse and a spare in a Pelican case. And I can definitely picture how one could be very valuable during a slow speed distress situation, say a dismasting or a gravely ill crew member, or to check that the EPIRB really worked from your life raft! But superior to an EPIRB?

PS A nice shot from a French marine electronique company showing  the sort of use Iridium is really suited for, sitting in the nav station making calls, checking e-mail, and downloading GRIB weather files into MaxSea. And, yes, that green thing is a Sailor radio of some sort.

Iridium maxsea-blu

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Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now excited to have Ben Stein as very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Panbo is going to the next level in 2019 and beyond.

6 Responses

  1. Russ says:

    It’s a perspective I first saw put forth by Richard Spindler at Latitude 38. Do you want to talk with someone when you may or may not be able to accurately communicate your position, or just wait in your raft? Richard prefers the phone.
    If you have to choose only one, I’ll take the EPIRB because the battery lasts longer and it transmits my position. But in reality, I take both.

  2. Eli says:

    I would not rely on the Iridum over an epirb. The fact is that it is not waterproof, and many situations that would require one to get in a liferaft are very wet and inhospitable to an Iridium. I keep mine in a waterproof pelican case, so getting it into the raft shouldn’t pose much of a problem, it’s using it whilst in the raft that worries me a bit…at least if I am using it in lieu of an epirb for some reason. One thing that has always surprised me about the phone is that it is amazingly sensitive to a clear view of the sky, meaning that one might be forced to have the phone unprotected by the liferaft canopy (if your raft is equipped with one) in order to use it. The other big issue with the Iridium is battery life. I have not found it to be very good at all, so you would have to be very clear about relaying information to whoever you’re calling. As a technology in general, the phone is fantastic at what it does, and I have been a particular fan of the free text messaging (incoming) that you receive with the service, but I would not want to rely soley on it to save my ass in an emergency.

  3. DefJef says:

    Redundancy makes sense. Someone who can afford Iridium can afford a 406… maybe not the other way round. A choice… go epirb.
    If an Iridium phone can be rented for an offshore passage… it might be a could way to add redundancy , a safety factor and not go completely broke.
    DO they rent Iridium for short term use?
    sv Shiva

  4. CharlieJ says:

    EPIRB with Iridium back-up if the budget allows. Not only is the EPIRB automatic when activated, it sets in motion an entire process that will lead to a rescue with no further intervention by the people in distress.

  5. Milt Baker says:

    Iridium as a REPLACEMENT for an EPIRB? No way!!
    Iridium as a SUPPLEMENT to an EPIRB? Great way!!
    Different tools for different jobs.
    That said, I’m reminded of a friend whose tough ketch was hit by a rouge wave 200 miles off Halifax and rolled 360 degrees, taking on substantial water in the process. A crew member was seriously injured in the incident. Immediately afterwards, the captain used his Iridium phone to call his son in Fort Lauderdale, give a lat/lon and quick description of the problem, and ask for help getting the injured crewmember off. His son got on the phone and coordinated a rescue with the coasties, and the crew member was taken off the boat by a nearby freighter within six hours.
    The Iridium made only that one phone call before enough of the salt water taken on corroded the phone’s internal battery, rendering the phone useless.
    Belt AND suspenders!
    –Milt Baker, Nordhavn 47 Bluewater

  6. richard says:

    the green radio is a rt 144 vhf set from sailor! the best vhf ever build!

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